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Christmas

‘We’re afraid, we’re depressed. And we’re worried for the health of our children.’ Reality of life for the Women of Gaza

For over a decade, the Gaza Strip has amounted to an experiment in human isolation. Years of blockades and a life in lockdown has caused severe psychological distress for the women of Gaza. Sr. Bridget Tighe, Humanitarian and Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, reflects on her recent visit there.

“When you go into Gaza it is like crossing into a fourth world country. That was one thing that shocked me when I first visited, and I’m not easily shocked at this point in my life.”

“Everyone in Gaza is in a constant state of worry. Like the women in most cultures, they bear the brunt of worry and concern for their families. Most women in Gaza are poor or very poor. There is a small percentage of women who are working but most are not.”

In May of this year 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40 women, were killed following 11 days of intense violence. Many began saying their final goodbyes to family members and friends during the 11-day onslaught, fearing they would die in one of the heaviest Israeli attacks on the Palestinian enclave.

“The combined dreadful effect on the economy, on the psychology, on the mental health of the children. It’s just unending.” says Sr. Brigid

“During my visit, I spoke to one of our staff who herself is a mother and has children,  one with severe mental handicaps. So, she’s really suffering. And I said to her, Assiah, how are you? And she smiled and said, I’m fine, thank you. I said, Assiah, how are you really? And her eyes filled up with tears. And she said, life is very, very hard.”

Trócaire and its partners have funded much needed mobile medical clinics to provide psychosocial supports to women and children living in Gaza. Years of violence, blockades and a life in lockdown has left its mark.

Sr Bridget, who is Secretary General for Caritas Jerusalem, explains that a key component of this psychosocial project is  bringing women together.

“There are women psychologists in the clinic and the women attending are able to express themselves to share their problems. And with this programme, the children are allocated sessions as well as mothers.”

“We’ve done this programme before. So, the children have sessions alone, the women have their own sessions and then they come together. If psychologists see that an individual, whether it’s an adult woman or child, needs someone to one session, there is a qualified psychologist available.”

Trócaire has funded other important health initiatives in Gaza to support children who get ill because of a nearby contaminated water source.

“That is a very, very basic service for extremely poor children who lived near untreated sewage plants. This is the reality in Gaza. We treat thousands of children.

“We also treat pregnant women, giving them good antenatal care, providing vitamins and iron and antenatal scanning.  Very important work that the people of Ireland, through Trócaire, have funded.”

Access to healthcare is a huge challenge in Gaza. Patients needing treatment in West Bank or East Jerusalem hospitals must first get requests and exit passes approved.

In 2019, the approval rate for patient applications to leave the Gaza Strip was 65%. Over the last few months, the health situation has been exacerbated by coronavirus, with many struggling to get the treatment they need.

“Cancer patients in Gaza can get chemotherapy treatment but they have no access to radiotherapy because the equipment isn’t allowed in because it would be considered ‘double usage’. They’re afraid that people with not so good intentions might take it and use it for something else.”

“The biggest hospital is called Shifa hospital, near our clinic in Gaza. It’s a big hospital. It offers a whole range of services, but it’s very underfunded. The equipment is old. There are good doctors and nurses, very dedicated staff but they have basic training because most cannot leave to go overseas to specialize or to upgrade themselves.”

Patients are allowed into Israel to get radiotherapy but during COVID, it was more difficult to travel. More than a million people in Gaza are classed as ‘moderately-to-severely food insecure’, according to the UN, despite many receiving some form of food aid.  Women’s participation in the labour force is among the lowest in the world at about 22%.

“I’m with Caritas almost seven years now and have lived in the Middle East a long time. I don’t think I will ever get used to the suffering and poverty I see. I hope not anyway, in the sense of being hardened to it, but I have seen a lot of this in my lifetime. I just try to facilitate helping them as much as I can, which is why I love Caritas. Caritas is doing amazing work.”

“What else can Trócaire do? What can Ireland do? And I think they are pretty good at doing it, to lobby the international community. Especially to lobby the United States and to pressurise Israel to open up the borders so that people in Gaza can travel, that they can go abroad to study, that they come to Israel or go to Jordan to see their children.”

While we in Ireland prepare for Christmas festivities and think about what gifts we’re going to buy and who we’re going to see, the people of Gaza are being denied the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedom. Every day they are forced into higher levels of poverty, aid dependency, food insecurity, and unemployment.

Sr Bridget is grateful for the ongoing support from the Irish public which is providing much needed supports for the women of Gaza.

“Trócaire supporters are wonderful in constantly helping people here in Gaza, in the West Bank, as well as all over the world. And I know that people in Ireland also suffered or are still suffering from the effects of COVID. “

“Thank you for your support. Thank you for giving. Have a happy Christmas, may your families keep safe and well.”

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